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The Creator Speaks: Rohrer On Chain World

Featured post The good book, I guess

In the beginning, there was a GDC presentation. Just a quiet little talk between developers, and a what-if experiment wherein a one-off, modded version of Minecraft was personally passed by Passage/Sleep Is Death/Inside A Star-Filled Sky creator Jason Rohrer to a curious audience member, who would then be the only person to see what Rohrer had built inside the game. The rules: you do not talk about Chain World. You do not keep on playing Chain World once you die in it. You then pass it on to someone who has ‘expressed interest,’ and to no other.

That was the plan, anyway. Then this secret world’s first inheritor, Jia Ji, came up with his own, rather different plan: a philanthropic auction, which closed at $3,300, and a promise to later send Chain World on to gaming luminaries Jane McGonigal and Will Wright. He told us why he did that earlier today, as well as why he offered RPS a copy (the temptation was you-would-not-believe strong, but we ultimately declined). So how did Rohrer feel about his quiet attempt at founding a digital religion being so quickly turned to a new, and very public, belief system? Did he even intend for this to become a talking point that’s infuriating as many people as it’s exciting? Were those rules he made actually designed to be broken all along? And if this is a religion, who is its god? Let’s ask him.

Incidentally, if you haven’t already done so, I very strongly urge you to watch the first 15 or so minutes of this video, wherein the Chain World concept is introduced. A fair few people have lobbed bile at the project and its creator without actually witnessing the casual cheer with which it was first pitched. If you’re at all tempted to snarl about how this is arch posturing and pretension (which admittedly text-based summations can be guilty of making it appear to be), watch this first and you might be extremely surprised.

You’ve watched it, yeah? You’re not allowed to read the below interview until you have.

RPS – Chain World has almost immediately headed off down a different path than the one you originally suggested for it. How do you feel about this? Is charity and celebrity to the good or ill of the project?

The moment I sent USB stick out into the world, it became totally out of my control. That was, in part, the point—each person in the chain does her part, but has no control—or knowledge—of what happens after she passes. Those mechanisms invest your one, personal play through the game with an extreme amount of gravity. This is it, my one chance. As I said during my talk, the one Chain World game that I played ended with the most heart-breaking death in my entire video game life. I was left with a deep sense of loss over what I had failed to accomplish, but I was somewhat comforted in the knowledge that others might carry on where I left off. In other words, it was a sense of beautiful loss.

So, I suppose each person will have the tendency to think very carefully about what they want to do with their own moment in Chain World. I think it’s safe to say that Jia Ji went overboard in a weird direction that no one was expecting. He emailed me a few times when he was setting this all up—I didn’t put my foot down or tell him not to do it (not that I really could have anyway). I mostly just sat quietly and watched it all unfold.

I’m not particularly interested in the charity that he’s chosen, nor am I in favour of tying celebrities to the whole thing. Playing my part in the meta-game-religion around the whole thing, I’ve encouraged people to break Jia’s rules just as he broke mine. Why should the person who won his eBay auction feel forced to send the stick onto someone that Jia chooses?

RPS – How much, if at all, would you agree with the argument that fragmentation and breaking of the rules makes it even more akin to how religions have traditionally evolved?

Yeah, I guess I couldn’t have set a better religion in motion on purpose than what I seem to have set in motion by accident.

RPS – Are your rules designed to be broken and evolved – i.e. are they the 10 Commandments or are they the Bible?

Wait, which one of those examples is designed to be broken and evolved?

In the case of Chain World, all of this really depends on the fundamental limits of digital technology. There is no such thing as an “original” digital file. The rules of Chain World are included on that USB stick as a simple ASCII text file. People who read the rules from this file have no way of knowing that what they are reading are my original rules. In fact, there’s no way to verify that they are playing an unmodified, true instance of Chain World. I spent some time making the USB stick itself rather unique, and I’m pretty sure that I could identify a fake, but I’m the only one in the world who knows for sure what the original physical object looked like. Also, someone could modify the stick!

The point is, while I didn’t design the rules to be broken or evolved, the way that the rules are delivered does not prevent people from breaking and evolving them.

RPS – Have you been in discussion with Ji, McGonigal or Wright? And leading on from that, how invested are you in shaping the project’s future now it’s out of your physical hands?

Jia emailed me a few times in the beginning as he was setting things up, but I mostly stayed quiet and didn’t get involved in any discussions. Jane emailed me about borrowing some of my slides for PAX, but we had no discussion either. We later had some email exchanges after the twitter-scape directed its collective anger at her. No, I’m not mad at Jane! I’ve never in my life communicated with Will Wright, though I hope to someday, because I’ve enjoyed his games and his talks.

I’m not invested in shaping the project’s future at all. I sent it out in the world—that was my part. Though I am watching the events unfold.

RPS – What do you expect to happen in the near future, and what did you predict would be its status around about now had Mr Ji not been such a force of chaos?

Well, I’m waiting to see what the eBay winner does with the stick, if anything. Will Jia fork off more copies and hold additional auctions? Will the whole thing just die down and disappear?

If Jia had not stirred things up the way that he did, it would probably be passing quietly from hand to hand, and there would be no news story at all.

RPS – More generally, were you braced for this becoming something of an online sensation when you made the pitch at GDC? Indeed, how much was that the point?

Absolutely not. In fact, the way I designed it made it sort of an anti-sensation. No online presence. No way of tracking the location of the stick. Something that disappears from public view forever, immediately after my talk, and makes everyone wonder about it after that. A secret practice, of sorts. And a secret practice doesn’t make headlines.

RPS – One thing that hasn’t been written about much is the fact that this has Minecraft at its heart, as much as the concept of the secret hand-me-down world. While admittedly I can’t think of all that many other games that would have fit so neatly (although now I think of it Sleep Is Death could have had wonderful results), why Minecraft? Anything to do with the fact that there are elements of the religious cult around it/Notch in the first place, or am I just wildly reaching here?

Yeah, sticking one of my own existing games in the middle of a “new religion” would have felt way too much like self-promotion.

I actually wanted to design a new game to fit into the chain model, but as I tried to envision one, my mind kept circling back to Minecraft. I’d start with some other simple core design, but to make it feel right, I’d add this feature and that feature, until what I had was essentially Minecraft. After going through that process several times, I eventually just conceded to the most obvious solution and used Minecraft.

And, it was a perfect fit, because it’s also a game that has created quite a few spiritual feelings in me already. There’s already something like a Chain World phenomenon happening on the multiplayer servers (if you’re clever enough to gain access to one)—you wander around and wonder about all these object that others have constructed and left behind. You think carefully about what you build and how others that come after you will perceive it. Then the server admin installs an upgrade, forcing a world reset, and all that collective work is lost!

And if there’s a god of Minecraft, it’s certainly Notch. He set the algorithms in motion that sculpt the raw, natural form of the world. He’s the one who picked the number 128.

RPS – Thanks for your time.

Jason Rohrer’s latest game is tactical shmup Inside A Star Filled Sky, which we gave some initial impressions of here. We’ll be writing more about it at some point soon.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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